Healthy & Unhealthy "Goblin Mode"
Oxford Dictionary’s Word(s) of the year for 2022, Goblin Mode, indicates a widespread response to the disappointments of the past few years. Is it completely mindless or can it be helpful?
As I returned home early Sunday morning from a pointless trip to the mechanic because he still hadn’t shown up a half hour after opening, I felt a familiar irritation taking hold. It’s the same irritation I feel when I go into a store and the shelves are half empty. Or meet a friend at a restaurant for lunch, only to discover they’re no longer open for lunch and didn’t bother to update their website. The same questions run through my mind regularly. Why is customer service so lacking these days? Why don’t people take pride in their work anymore? What has happened to us as a society?
As I’m sure you can guess, asking those questions only makes me feel worse, so after a few seconds, I take a few deep breaths, refocus my attention on something pleasant or productive and try to move on. But in speaking with a lot of people every week, I know I’m not the only one apprehensive about the future and it’s very hard to find a reason why things seem so messed up, which is what really causes the discomfort. Give me an explanation and my brain can relax. But certainty is in short supply these days, so what do we do with these emotions?
As I started searching online for clues, I came across Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2022 – Goblin Mode.
The term goblin mode was first seen on Twitter in 2009, so it wasn’t created in response to the pandemic. But it has continued to grow as a mindset since early 2020, fueled by the discomfort we’ve all experienced as Covid 19 continues to disrupt lives.
The slang term goblin mode describes a way of life that gives people permission to abandon societal norms and embrace their basic instincts. Oxford defines it as “a type of behavior which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.” That definition certainly doesn’t sound very mindful, but this psychological phenomenon may deserve some further examination.
The term exploded in early 2022, as people started to return to more aspects of their pre-pandemic lives, not during the most restrictive periods we all endured. It seemed to represent a prevailing mood of individuals who were venturing out of their homes more regularly, be it social or back to work, but rejected the idea of returning to “normal.” Interestingly, it also included a rebellion against the unattainable aesthetic standards and unrealistic lifestyles exhibited on social media.
According to Oxford Languages president, Casper Grathwohl, "Given the year we’ve just experienced, ‘goblin mode’ resonates with all of us who are feeling a little overwhelmed at this point,” he said. "It’s a relief to acknowledge that we’re not always the idealized, curated selves that we’re encouraged to present on our Instagram and TikTok feeds ... People are embracing their inner goblin, and voters choosing ‘goblin mode’ as the Word of the Year tells us the concept is likely here to stay.”
For social media, that sounds rather mindful. We spend an enormous amount of time worried about what others think about us, especially online, so if goblin mode is a rebellion against that, perhaps it’s a positive trend for humankind.
Except that going goblin mode embraces depravity, not only spending all day binge-watching, but leaving the house in your pajamas and slippers, not taking your medication, not showing up for appointments, or in some cases work, and eating a lot of very unhealthy junk food. Basically indulging in any behavior that makes you feel better in the moment, regardless of what others think or whether it’s good for you or them.
It represents an extreme, where others are frequently not even considered. Psychotherapist Susan Zinn says, “In goblin mode, an individual will do anything not to feel. Instead, they will escape by binge-watching Bravo or Netflix in bed all day while mindlessly scrolling on social media eating snacks rather than actual food to allow them to lose track of reality altogether.” That would indicate that people embracing their inner goblin as a means of escapism isn’t healthy or mindful.
Zinn went on to say that, “Goblin mode is a quick fix rather than choosing a healthier way to regulate their nervous system. Sadly, like all addictions and forms of escapism, participating in goblin mode behaviors will only reinforce feelings of anxiety.”
I understand the need to rebel. The pandemic seems to wear on endlessly in some way or another and in the midst of the chaos of current events, people feel cheated by the system and are rejecting the status quo. We’ve also lost many of our habits because when we’re at home there are no social pressures to follow norms. But for those not in goblin mode, watching people shop in their jammies or not show up for work is unsettling, so it’s spreading the uncomfortable emotions we’re all experiencing.
While there are a lot of varying behaviors involved with goblin mode, it seems clearly based in avoiding feelings. We don’t like discomfort and we’ve been overloaded with it for years now, so the reaction is extreme. But ruining our health and perhaps society isn’t really the best answer. A better approach might be more of a happy medium.
Mindfulness can help us deal with difficult emotions and if we have a solution to that, we can still indulge in a lighter form of goblin mode, like not feeling the need to meet everyone else’s unrealistic expectations. The false perfectionism online is not good for our mental health, so that’s definitely a move toward more well-being. Likewise for junk food. Sometimes there is nothing so comforting as eating something saturated in fat and salt, so I get it. But it’s the extremism that’s the current problem. If we can learn to lean into our difficult emotions instead of avoiding them, perhaps we can limit the amount of junk food we eat without eliminating comfort food altogether.
One way to approach difficult emotions is through our bodies. Sometimes, we simply can’t stop our brains from overwhelming us with negative thoughts so shifting out of our thoughts and into our physicality can help us gently approach uncomfortable feelings and much more effectively than eating a bag of potato chips.
Start with identifying what your difficult emotion is. Is it fear, anger, sadness, shame? Explore nonjudgmentally, like a researcher trying to identify a problem. Once you’ve identified it, consider what caused it to arise. Was there a specific incident or was it a thought that popped into your mind, for example. Try to hone in on one incident or thought at a time.
Next, focus on that incident or thought and notice any physical sensations that arise. Where do you feel it? What does it feel like? Does the sensation change in any way? Don’t try to change the physical sensations. Simply observe them as they are.
Now see if you can experience the feeling without immediately pushing it away. If you feel discomfort rising and are tempted to tamp down the emotions, or eat a bag of chips, just take a deep breath and settle your mind down, returning to the body and the physical sensations.
Try to be curious about the sensations, noticing your relationship to them. Be fully present to whatever that part of your body is doing. There’s no need to judge it. It’s simply a sensation occurring that will pass. Be kind to yourself, perhaps even saying, “I’m okay. I don’t need to get caught up in this.”
As you practice this bodily awareness that is tied to your emotions, you may notice other difficult emotions arise. That’s okay. Just return your attention to your direct experience in the moment. What are you feeling? What does it feel like? How is it changing?
The longer you can hold your attention on the present moment in your body and mind, the more you will recognize that feelings and emotions come up and then pass. This strengthens your ability to accept whatever arises and just allow it to be because you know it will pass. It is avoiding these feelings that results in them constantly surfacing. If you can accept and allow, they will begin to subside.
You can find many guided meditations online for dealing with difficult emotions, including on our YouTube channel, but if you’re finding it difficult to get out of goblin mode, or accept those in goblin mode, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional support. Our mental health has taken a big hit over the past 3 years and we deserve some relief.
Whether you’re in full-blown goblin mode or sliding into a funk over our general conditions, it’s a good idea to take a few minutes to think about your values. Avoiding work or even getting dressed every day is not going to make you feel good about yourself in the long-run. We are happiest when we serve a purpose and finding meaning in our lives helps us feel good about ourselves. I don’t want to return to the “normal” where everyone feels pressured all of the time to work harder, be better, and get more stuff. But going to the other extreme, where we decide not to pursue anything, can’t sustain our innate needs.
We can reduce our inner goblins’ power by facing our difficult emotions and by taking care of ourselves through nutritional food, quality sleep and staying in alignment with our values. We can still let our goblins loose on occasion, but we can’t allow them to rule our lives. Be mindful of your goblin and make sure it’s not getting out of control. Instead of mindlessly rebelling against our pre-pandemic lives, plan out what you’d like your new normal to be. What would make you feel good about yourself? How can you contribute to making our world at least a little bit better? What small steps can you take today to shift from a goblin mode mindset to a mindful one that best serves you as well as others? Considering the year we seem to be facing, all good food for thought.
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A Mindful Moment is written and hosted by Teresa McKee and/or Melissa Sims. The Spanish version is translated and hosted by Paola Theil. Intro music, Retreat, by Jason Farnham. Outro music, Morning Stroll by Josh Kirsch, Media Right Productions. Thank you for tuning in! This podcast is produced by Work2Live Productions.